You long for a body that turns heads in the gym: muscular, buff and defined. Ripped abs are part of this whole physique package. Of course, effort on the weight room floor is a must if you’re going to build muscle, but what you eat is just as important — if not more so.
With the right training principles, exercises and balance of macronutrients, you can achieve your goals of ribbed abs and muscle gain.
Eat More Quality Calories
Gaining muscle requires a calorie surplus, but this doesn’t mean you can gorge on ice cream and hot dogs galore. Just 250 to 500 calories more than you burn regularly helps you add muscle, not fat. To determine your daily calorie burn rate, use an online calculator — like this one from MyPlate — that takes into account your age, gender and activity level.
When you add calories, don’t go for high-calorie junk such as sugars, refined carbs and saturated fat. Instead, make your meals consist of lean protein, fresh produce, whole grains and healthy fats, such as avocado and nuts. Also, avoid wasting your calories on drinks, such as soda, fancy coffees and alcohol.
Reduce Carb Intake
You don’t have to go no-carb or even super low-carb to look defined. But, modestly reducing your carb intake can help you burn off fat — especially fat that covers your belly and prevents your six-pack from showing. A study published in a 2015 issue of the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated that consuming 40 to 43 percent of daily calories from carbohydrates, as opposed to the standard recommendation of 45 to 65 percent of calories, had positive effects on fat loss and distribution.
For a standard 2,000-calorie diet, this is 200 to 215 grams daily. You can still enjoy one to two pieces of whole fruit, a 1/2 cup of grains, such as oatmeal or brown rice, at most meals and some dairy daily with such a plan.
Focus on Protein
A good portion of your total daily calories should come from protein. Protein provides amino acids that help in the muscle building and repair process. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends between 0.72 and 0.91 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily for strength-building athletes. For a 150-pound person, this amounts to between 108 and 137 grams of protein daily.
Divide your specific protein needs up among four or five meals. For example, have two hard-boiled eggs with breakfast, grilled chicken breast with lunch, broiled flank steak at dinner and enjoy low-fat, Greek yogurt and string cheese with snacks.
Schedule one of your meals immediately after your workout. Not only will you replace calories burned, but you’ll send nutrients to your muscles when they’re ripe to receive them for growth and recovery. Aim for about 20 grams of protein and some carbs at this meal — a post-workout whey protein smoothie made with fruit and milk is a nutritious option.
Go for Compound Moves
Big, compound moves, such as squats and deadlifts, do double duty. They help you build muscle by moving multiple joints at once and activate many of the key core muscles you long to define. Do these moves in lieu of smaller, isolation exercises, such as biceps curls. Choose at least one exercise that primarily targets every major muscle group, including the chest, back, arms, shoulders, hips, buttocks and thighs. Some moves target multiple muscle groups at once, though; for example, the row targets the back and the biceps effectively.
A simple weight workout that will effectively build muscle includes:
- barbell squats
- leg curls
- step ups
- dumbbell shoulder press
- barbell rows
- dumbbell chest press
Vary your weight routine every month to six weeks to constantly challenge your body and get results. This might involve re-ordering the exercises or adding new ones altogether.
For your compound moves to add muscle, you must challenge the muscle fibers to break down so they repair and grow thicker and stronger. When you do lift weights, go for heavy ones that you can only manage for four to eight total repetitions. Increase weight when eight reps feel doable. Build up to at least three sets of each exercise. Give yourself at least 48 hours between muscle groups worked.
Give up Crunches
Stop doing crunches all the time. They only train the superficial rectus abdominus, the front sheath of your abs, and don’t burn fat. They’re also relatively limited in their ability to sculpt your washboard belly.
Augment the ab-building benefits of the compound exercises you do with three to five extra ab-specific workouts per week. At each, include five to 10 ab exercises, such as the ones below, that focus on a combination of flexion, rotation and side bending. Do at least eight reps of each move before going to the next.
Hanging Leg Raise
Hanging from your hands requires the most core stability to keep from swinging. You’ll target both the upper and lower portion of your abdominal region with this move.
Hold onto a pull-up bar with an overhand grip or place your arms into ab straps.
Engage your abs by pulling your belly button in toward your spine and then raise your knees up past your hips.
Release to the long-leg hanging position to complete one repetition.
Target your whole core, particularly the deep transverse abdominis and the obiques, with this variation on the classic plank exercise.
Get into the top of a pushup, or a plank resting on your forearms and toes.
Lift your right leg and pull the knee in and around the side of your body to touch your right tricep.
Keep your body rigid as you finish your reps on the right, then switch to the left.
You may have heard of the ab wheel — it can be effective, but hard on your back. Try a similar move with a stability ball instead.
Get into all-fours with your hands on a stability ball.
Keep your belly strongly pulled in toward your spine, roll the ball out as far away as you can.
Roll the ball back toward you to complete one repetition. Maintain a rigid back the whole time.
Do a set or two of the roll-out angling to the right and then the left to put more emphasis on the obliques.
Cable Wood Chop
Use a cable machine set at shoulder height, or alternatively fix a resistance band to a sturdy anchor, to effectively train rotational movement and muscles such as the quadratus lumborum and obliques, which are responsible for twisting and contribute to a cut-looking middle.
Stand with your left side facing the cable machine and grab the handle with both hands. Step away slightly so you feel tension and plant your feet hip-distance apart.
Keep your arms extended and twist away from the anchor point, to the right.
Control your return to the starting position so that you resist the rotation slightly, rather than get pulled by the cable. Do all the reps on one side and then switch direction.